No matter how painful it can be, these shows make me grateful to love television and excited to be a superhero fan.
I can’t wait for the next five years.
When I last set out to survey the landscape of superhero television, figuring out where to start was easy. Arrow debuted in October 2012 and kicked off a boom in superhero shows that continues to this day. Where else could you possibly begin the story of the superhero TV boom? Just three years later, I have no idea where to start. The last piece ended with some thoughts on ten then-upcoming superhero shows. Just two of those ten are still airing. Seven were cancelled and one never made it to air in the first place.
The landscape of superhero television no longer has an epicentre. It’s not really a boom anymore, it’s a bubble: a big wobbly one that keeps growing and growing and growing and never bursts no matter the ludicrous shapes it takes. Last time I wrote about it, the superhero television market had at least three large competitors in Disney, Warner and Fox. But Disney ate Fox and AT&T bought out Warner so now it’s just two colossal conglomerates producing virtually all superhero TV shows. Both conglomerates have also launched their own bespoke streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, full of all the content they pulled from the original streaming giants who’d previously licensed it like Netflix and Amazon. Disney+ and HBO Max need to produce exclusive content on top of their deep libraries if they want to come out on top in the next phase of the streaming wars. Why not pump out a bunch of superhero shows? It doesn’t even matter that DC’s superhero shows are supposed to go on their dedicated streaming service, DC Universe: let’s release them simultaneously on both. Meanwhile, Disney is doubling down on the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet again by throwing mountains of cash at TV spin-offs for Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. WandaVision. Loki. Naturally, the bigwigs over at Netflix and Amazon see they’re in an arms race and have ordered their own shows like The Umbrella Academy and The Boys. And on and on and on it goes.
It’s hard to look at something that used to give you such joy and just feel tired. There’s nothing left of what used to excite you, just the same bland homogeneity repeated again and again into forever and beyond. I’ve loved superheroes all my life and I guess I still do deep down, but most superhero stories barely make an impression nowadays. Just an endless sea of pure content washing over me like a rock and slowly grinding me down to sand.
Three shows of the superhero boom that I watched to the end – Arrow, Gotham and Legion – each deserve their own retrospective. But, in lieu of anywhere else to start, I’ll still have to begin my eulogy to the genre with its last gasp.
The sixth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Batwoman – was called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and I did not enjoy it.
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” is based on the classic crossover comic book series of the same name from the mid-80s, which collapsed the DC Multiverse into a single DC Universe so all its superhero stories took place on the same Earth. The crossover event did the same, bringing Supergirl and, bizarrely, Black Lightning into the same world as the other Arrowverse shows. Obviously, this new world has a new history, so all previous seasons of the shows are no longer canon, except in so far as some of the characters, for various reasons, can remember the previous timeline. It’s an insane, off-putting gimmick to lump on someone watching all the shows, but imagine what it’s like for people who only watch one show and don’t really follow the crossovers. It’s one thing for Supergirl, which has at least crossed over with the other shows previously, but I bet a ton of Black Lightning viewers watched it precisely because it was the only superhero show on The CW that wasn’t part of the Arrowverse and now it is.
Every DC show on The CW and every live-action show on DC’s streaming service is produced by Greg Berlanti. DC Universe originally had one show he didn’t produce, Swamp Thing, but cancelled it less than a week after it premiered, despite positive reviews. Every single Greg Berlanti superhero show, no matter how different the tone or the characters or whatever, looks exactly the same. The same kind of camera setups and colour temperature and blocking and editing, presumably at one point a creative choice, but now seemingly to make sure everyone looks the same in crossovers as they do in their shows. It’s a level of imposed visual uniformity that possibly outdoes even the MCU. Every single Greg Berlanti superhero show is principally and explicitly about What It Means To Be A Hero. When people say superhero movies are the new westerns, booming now but destined for a bust, I try to imagine how big the western boom would have got if westerns were half as superficial and navel-gazing as superhero movies and shows. If every western was principally, explicitly about What It Means To Be A Cowboy. Westerns plunge their hands into the molten core of American national myth to find raw materials for shaping all different kinds of stories. Superhero movies are just automated cash printers. We’ve long since abandoned the days when directors as different in style as Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan could put their own spin on a character and take him in a strange new direction. For a while, superhero television still had that potential. But it feels like the last shred of it died when HBO effectively cancelled Watchmen.
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” existed in significant part to consolidate as much of DC’s TV shows under this one suffocating banner. Maybe exclusively in part, since the story isn’t driven by much except having characters you know from different things, but at the same time, and the mild thrill of seeing if and/or how they do and/or don’t subvert or twist a story you already know. And they tell it in the dullest way possible. The heroes need to gather a team of seven people with Plot Powers called the Paragons who will use their Plot Powers to beat up the Crossover Villain and then reboot the world. Oliver from Arrow dies at the end of the first episode, but then his daughter from the future brings his body back to life and gets Constantine from the short-lived Constantine series, who’s now part of Legends of Tomorrow, I think, to take her into the afterlife to get Oliver’s soul back but then Oliver is told he needs to become the Spectre, who’s a superhero who’s a ghost and that was honestly kind of a neat idea, but they processed Stephen Amell’s voice so he sounds like a mysterious higher power instead of a person, and then he might have died again as the Spectre? I feel like that was implied at the end of Arrow proper when Felicity from the original timeline (which, let us recall, does not exist anymore) let the Monitor take her to the afterlife in the flash-forward timeline from season seven (which, again, does not exist anymore) so she can be with Oliver forever in death. But it did seem in the flash-forward episode / backdoor pilot for a spin-off show called Green Arrow and the Canaries, about Oliver’s daughter and two time-displaced characters from the original show teaming up to do something, that Oliver briefly appeared as the Spectre to restore the pre-Crisis memories of his best friend’s son, John Diggle, Jr. who was the fourth Deathstroke in the original flash-forward timeline, but just a gallery director in the new timeline.
I guess I could try to take you through all that rigmarole with all the shows involved, but (1) I don’t think you want that and (2) I actually couldn’t, because I only watched Arrow by the time it ended. I gave up on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow long ago, though I believe and salute those who tell me the latter gets really good in season three. I broke up with Supergirl over its abominable third season and I just never watched Black Lightning or Batwoman. I burned out on the Arrowverse style even as I stuck with its pilot ship right to the end. I didn’t watch Titans or Doom Patrol either, and I’m not going to watch Stargirl or Superman & Lois (a Supergirl spin-off) or the aforementioned Green Arrow and the Canaries. I might have watched Swamp Thing if they didn’t put it to death immediately – I still might, honestly – but I don’t want to watch any more superhero shows by Berlanti Productions. It’s possible I just don’t want to watch any more at all. I literally just remembered there’s a show on Epix about young Alfred from Batman called Pennyworth and it’s just a mid-century spy thriller, but three of the characters are Alfred and Batman’s parents for no reason. It’s not a melding of genres like Marvel’s dearly departed Agent Carter, a mid-century spy thriller set in a comic book world. It’s just an okay spy show. I don’t understand why just slapping a thin coat of copyrighted material on a dry, almost mechanical reiteration of the same old shite is supposed to hook people. I understand even less why it apparently hooks enough of them to make it worth a conglomerate’s while to keep making them.
I did enjoy Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen adapation on HBO, which largely manages to withstand the myopic navel-gazing of so many superhero stories, especially DC, while also commenting on, replying to and thoroughly recontextualising the original comic book. It’s an adaptation whose critique of the source text comes as much from adding to the world of the story as from reimagining it. It’s also just a compelling piece of television regardless of your familiarity with the comic. Its sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being”, is all-time great TV and its new characters are genuinely interesting and novel, especially Looking Glass, who I love dearly. But even though Lindelof suggested HBO continue it with a new showrunner or as an anthology series, hopping around in time and space to explore its world through different lenses, they shelved it until he has an idea for another season. Is it even part of the landscape if it’s done, for all intents and purposes? I guess it’s still part of the bubble. But it’s neither part of the larger trends in the genre nor pushing against them in any meaningful way. It’s just one weird little pocket of difference that never dissolved into the lukewarm nothingness that otherwise keeps inflating superhero television far beyond what should be sustainable without ever bursting it. Just like Legion and Gotham, it demonstrated that a different vision of the superhero show was, is and always has been possible. Just like Legion and Gotham, it will likely have no discernible effect on what kind of superhero shows the conglomerates will permit.
Case in point: Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn is an adult animated show about the titular supervillain breaking up with the Joker and striking out on her own with the help of her best friend, Poison Ivy. An episode of its second season opens with a pair of DC fans on a couch, one with a “Release the Snyder Cut” t-shirt, the other in a “The Last Jedi Is Not Canon” t-shirt. One complains about Harley Quinn being a “tsunami of virtue-signalling” and asks why he’d watch a TV show set in Gotham that barely has Batman in it. You know, because they’re nerd bros, or whatever. The other guy thinks Harley Quinn is alright, actually, so his friend opens up DC Universe to see what the next episode is about. When he sees it doesn’t feature Harley or Poison Ivy, the show’s main characters, and focuses on Batman, he reluctantly puts it on, with the caveat that “if it sucks, we’re watching Family Guy”. It is incredibly cringe and unwittingly sums up basically everything wrong with Harley Quinn:
Harley Quinn is a show that plays at subversion, provocation and edginess, but never actually does any of them. It has elements that could never appear in a children’s superhero cartoon, sure. Some of the characters swear a lot, there’s blood and gore in fight scenes, and the existence of sex is more than theoretically acknowledged. On first glance, it might seem fresh and different, but you only need to compare it to virtually any other adult animated show to see how superficial it all is. Yeah, some of the characters say “fuck” and “shit”, but it’s 2020, not 1959. Most TV in the US is made by cable networks and streaming services that aren’t subject to the FCC’s rules on obscenity, indecency and profanity. The blood and gore is, I guess, a bit less common, but it’s also, fundamentally, just kind of adding red to an otherwise cartoonish scene, and pales in comparison to a genuinely provocative show like Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, whose finale features an ape-man getting punched so hard his face explodes and his body rips open at the midriff, with organs and bones spilling out at speed. And while sex certainly exists in Harley Quinn, it is somehow still extraordinarily sexless. Harley and Ivy sleep together twice in a recent episode and it’s just a smash-cut from them drinking the night before to waking up in bed the next morning, then getting immediately dressed. Harley says they had “mind-blowing orgasmic sex”, but the show is so sterile I don’t even think there’s a scene before that where they express desire for each other, or anyone. No one in this show is horny, they’re in love, and I’m not looking for softcore porn here, but when an “edgy” “adult” show can’t muster the guts in 2020 to portray any of its characters wanting another person the way Han and Leia wanted each other in 1980, there are deeper problems at play.
Harley Quinn very loudly and insistently wants to be seen as a feminist show about gals doing it for themselves. In season one, that means Harley wants to get into the Legion of Doom to prove she’s just as good a supervillain as Joker. In season two, Harley wants to hunt down and kill the Injustice League – Riddler, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Bane and Two-Face – after they almost kill her for not joining in their plan to take over Gotham (in which she was allotted the smallest, least profitable territory). It would obviously be facile to say the show’s not feminist just because it has more male characters than female (though it is worth saying there are, like, probably ten times as many recurring male characters as female). But that the show regularly just leaves its female lead to follow Joker or Gordon or Batman, the same characters as every other Gotham story in TV and film, on unrelated sideplots is mind-boggling. There’s genuinely an entire multi-episode subplot in the second season about Bane not feeling respected by the other members of the Injustice League because they deliberately gave him a hilariously small chair at their meetings. Poison Ivy is supposed to be the show’s secondary lead and should be a really interesting character to explore because she’s one of those supervillains who pursues an admirable goal (environmentalism) through deplorable means (genocide). Instead, her entire deal in the first season is that she starts dating D-list supervillain Kite Man behind Harley’s back and her entire deal for most of the second is planning their wedding. Batman is a more active character in season two of Harley Quinn and he can’t even leave the Batcave because a building fell on him. The misogynistic fan from the opening of the Batman-centric episode in season two is an infuriating caricature, not because no fans like that exist, but because there’s no way anyone could possibly be annoyed Harley Quinn has too little Batman. It has too much Batman!
And that’s what I despise most of all about this show: beneath its pretensions, it is desperate not to alienate anyone by actually being subversive, provocative or edgy. The thin veneer of girl power with Harley sticking it to male supervillains who look down on her is basically just a cover for the show’s unwillingness to even portray her as a villain. She and her crew commit largely victimless crimes like robbing Wayne Enterprises, and she’s horrified when her ally the Queen of Fables murders a bunch of people in one episode, even though her best friend is Poison Ivy, who wants to wipe out most of humanity, and her ex-boyfriend is the Joker. She spends more time saving Gotham than trying to take it over and the only time she really tries (and pretty much succeeds with very little effort), it’s only because she’s upset that Ivy doesn’t love her back, not because she’s, you know, a supervillain. Its episodes are boilerplate superhero cartoon stories, but with Harley instead of Batman (except when it just is Batman) and a load of cursing so you know it’s for grown-ups. Just about the only joke in the series that couldn’t fit in a show for the whole family with a little tweaking is when supervillain Dr Psycho gets cancelled for calling Wonder Woman a c*nt.
It’s not even visually different, it’s just the same variations on Bruce Timm’s character designs from Batman: The Animated Series that DC Animation has been spinning on repeat since people made fun of The Batman for having a Joker with dreadlocks. Its semi-serial structure is right out of earlier animated DC shows like Young Justice and Beware the Batman. The only original thing in it is Ivy’s talking plant sidekick Frank and he’s just a parody of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors (and sucks, also). What’s most painfully ironic about the opening to that Batman-centric episode is that it literally is virtue-signalling. It gives the totally false impression that Harley Quinn is strange or daring or feminist enough to piss off the archetypal misogynistic nerd bro when it’s actually bland, middle-of-the-road and too busy trying to please everyone to take a stand on anything. The closest it comes to something in the same neighbourhood as subversion is giving Bane a silly voice to parody Tom Hardy’s performance in The Dark Knight Rises, which came out eight years ago and was already memed to death within a week of its release. Of course Harley Quinn would dredge up a tired, hacky joke at the expense of a performance that actually was weird and different and polarising. It’s too reverent to the brand to do anything else.
M.O.D.O.K, an animated sitcom about the titular supervillain, will presumably be Disney’s attempt to do something similar with their universe. It’s gonna be about M.O.D.O.K., who’s a giant floating head of evil, having a mid-life crisis after his evil business is bought out by a bigger one. He’ll probably say lots of curse words too, because it’s going on Hulu instead of Disney+, which is where Disney puts all the stuff it doesn’t deem family-friendly, at least when it’s not just censoring it. M.O.D.O.K is one of two adult cartoons based on Marvel characters Disney has planned for Hulu, along with Hit-Monkey, which is apparently about a monkey assassin. They intrigue me as much as any superhero show that Disney has planned for its streaming services, i.e. not at all.
Of the eight live-action series they have announced – seven for Disney+, one for Hulu – all take place in the increasingly overcrowded and claustrophobic Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each of them is helpfully titled Marvel’s, even Helstrom, the sole Hulu-bound show on their docket. Marvel’s Helstrom is about two siblings whose dad was a serial killer, but given the characters are typically portrayed as the children of demons, I’m guessing the serial killer will turn out to be possessed by a demon or something. I can’t imagine reading any of this and wanting to watch any of these shows, even the ones with characters I like or concepts that I might find intriguing were Disney not involved.
Four of these upcoming shows – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, WandaVision and Hawkeye – are spin-offs of the movies, focusing on the titular characters after Endgame. WandaVision has the most exciting premise: it’s shot like a sitcom, but there’s something weird going on because Vision is dead in the MCU and some of the cast are random side characters from Thor and Ant-Man and the Wasp. I can see how a show like that could be really, really cool and interesting and different. Matt Shakman of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, who was behind the camera on so many of that show’s best episodes, is directing all of WandaVision and there’s still a part of me that’s like “y’know, if he’s left alone to make the show and doesn’t have Kevin Feige breathing down his neck all day, he could make television magic with that premise” as if I haven’t done this all before. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 having a load of generic superhero crap tacked onto its basically excellent story about PTSD, Edgar Wright losing Ant-Man because he tried to make an Edgar Wright film, the square peg styles of Scott Derrickson, Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi smashed into the round hole of the Disney brand, some more willingly than others, but all smashed into place nonetheless. Even if WandaVision is allowed to be weird and interesting and good for one season, it’ll just be a blip. No other media company in the world is as safe from the risks of creative ambition as Disney: it could sit on its vast mountain of intellectual property and turn a profit on it forever no matter what it did with it. It has more power than anyone else to back strange, challenging, ambitious movies and TV shows with basically no risk whatsoever of suffering substantial financial loss. It’s also the media company in the world most allergic to risk-taking, to ambition, to creativity, really. I don’t know why you’d be excited about any of their movies and TV shows except that you don’t really care about art, which is fine, but it makes all the movie and TV critics who do get genuinely excited about this utter rubbish just baffling to me.
Superhero television is like every other media market dominated by Disney: there’s so much to watch and so little to choose from. Everyone is either Disney or chasing Disney. It’s all the same. I remember a time not long past when I believed superhero shows could be good, because there were good shows. But I look back now and I have to ask myself: were there? There were good seasons of superhero shows – the first, second and fifth of Arrow, the first of The Flash, Daredevil and Jessica Jones – but the story is mostly of me wanting to believe in their potential and getting disappointed over and over. Gotham wasn’t a good show, but it was fascinatingly strange, stitched together from loads of different kinds of stories to make something not quite new, but unique nonetheless. Sure, it could be extraordinarily dumb and the plot was such a mess at times it seemed more like mad libs than a modern television serial. And yeah, it was kind of just a crime show set in an insane alternate reality with shapeshifters and zombies and stuff. But it also had a great cast and a surprising visual flair and more than a few moments of genuine breathtaking beauty. It was a show odd enough to somehow make the Penguin its most compelling villain, and not the freak show Penguin of Batman Returns either, just a normal human man. He was a preening, scheming, bratty little psychopath who double-crossed literally everyone he ever met and then got upset no one liked him. His mam was Carol Kane and he was in love with Riddler and the fact Robin Lord Taylor’s performance didn’t even get nominated for one of those awards no one cares about like the Saturns is honestly outrageous. I still wouldn’t call it good though. Gotham was my beautiful, tattered, misshapen piece of trash, but it was fundamentally trash. Looking back over this past decade, the only superhero show I could imagine people looking back on with high regard for decades to come is Legion.
Legion got kind of a raw deal in terms of critical reaction, even though it got quite good reviews right to the end. But its first season came out at the tail-end of a moment in (mostly US) critical discourse where the portrayal of mental illness on TV was a hot-button issue. From mid-2014 to mid-2016, a bunch of (at least initially) acclaimed shows with mentally-ill protagonists – BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, UnREAL, Mr. Robot, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jessica Jones, Lady Dynamite – debuted one after another, each bolstering the growing claim that TV’s attitudes towards mental health were suddenly maturing. The Guardian and Vulture both ran articles about the phenomenon, and while Legion was not part of that wave, it was slotted into the same mould on release, as no shortage of articles can attest. I was never really convinced by that framing of it. It had a mentally-ill protagonist, but it was not A Show About Mental Health the way BoJack or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Lady Dynamite were. It wasn’t, like most other superhero shows, a story where superpowers were there for their own sake and any thematic resonances were more or less a happy accident (or shoehorned into the script on an ad hoc basis). But it also wasn’t a story where superpowers were just a metaphor or allegory for a social issue, or a representation of a character’s inner struggle. It was something much stranger and more specific, a story where superpowers could mean certain things at some points (Syd’s ability to switch bodies with people is reflective of her empathetic nature) but not necessarily at others (Syd used her powers to switch bodies with her mother and effectively rape her mother’s boyfriend when she was a teenager).
Legion was a special show, and a truly great one, precisely because it resisted easy categorisation, both as a work of art and within its own story. It wasn’t about What It Means To Be A Hero, but what it means to be a person in a world of injustice. It was a show that took its characters’ actions very seriously, but refused to sort people into neat categories like hero and villain, victim and perpetrator. It genuinely, unironically believed in the idea that no one is completely good or evil, that everyone has hurt and been hurt, that to write anyone off as too broken or irredeemable to deserve life is cruel beyond imagining. A lot of people who had pigeonholed it as A Show About Mental Health turned on it as it ventured into this sincerely uncomfortable territory, because when you’ve decided the protagonist is an avatar for mentally-ill people, the fact that he does a bunch of evil shit as the show progresses (including rape and mass murder), and even tries to use his trauma as an excuse, means the show is no longer Getting Mental Health Right. Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about the tendency among some TV critics to decide what a show is early on and then never admit they might have been wrong no matter what happens as it goes on. I can hardly think of a show that suffered more from that tendency than Legion: what had been one of the buzziest shows on television became a bit of a footnote in the latter days of Peak TV. But I’m sure it will have its day yet, because it wasn’t just the best show of the superhero TV boom, it was one of the best shows of one of television’s best decades. Even aside from the way it somehow aimed at both nuance and moral clarity, it was astounding on the level of pure craft, one of the most visually ambitious and inventive television shows ever made probably. The first time its protagonist and his nemesis meet in person, they have a psychic battle illustrated with cartoon drawings of themselves in the sky while singing a bilingual duet of “Behind Blue Eyes”. I don’t know what the point of superheroes was if people don’t look back on Legion and say “now that was a good fucking show”.
I appreciate my focus on this second journey through the landscape of superhero television has had a narrower focus than the first and could fairly be regarded as incomplete without reference to any superhero shows not produced under the auspices of Disney or Warner Bros. But, honestly, I’m just so over superheroes, at least on screen, and I have been for a while now. I watched just three shows to the bitter end and I stuck with Arrow in significant part due to a mix of blind sentimental loyalty and sunk-cost-powered completionism. I still like the movies and shows that I like, and I’m actually looking forward to reading some comic books in the near future. I’ve had the first two volumes of The Wicked + The Divine on my shelf for years now and I just got my hands on the third volume of The Umbrella Academy, which I’m very excited about. But when it comes to superhero shows, I’m not even excited about the TV adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, which I genuinely tried to find something to say about in this article other than “I wish it was better”. The comic is a bizarre little gem that features the line “just as I suspected, Zombie-Robot Gustave Eiffel” in its first issue with just as little setup or context as it appears in this sentence and it rules. The show is fine. It has one of those soundtracks that’s full of good songs, but isn’t a good soundtrack, because the songs aren’t used well. Like, there’s a bit where a character who’s a young boy starts running, and the song that plays is called “Run, Boy, Run” and the first lines are “run, boy, run” and, you know, I get it, he’s a boy, he’s running, and there’s no irony to it at all, it’s the most foreboding-sounding song ever and it’s in a scene you already know is going to end in a dark place. (It also has a fight scene set to “Don’t Stop Me Now” and it’s so far beneath the fight scene in Shaun of the Dead set to “Don’t Stop Me Now” that it just made me zone out.) I admit of the possibility it will get a lot better in season two – it has all the raw materials in place – but I see no reason why I should hope it will.
I’ve hoped for years that superhero TV would realise its potential as a genre and it just hasn’t. I see all these new shows on the horizon, some of them based on characters I love like Ms. Marvel, some of them based on comics I’ve heard good things about like Invincible, and I just don’t care. They’re not going to do anything fresh or interesting. They probably won’t even do the predictable well. It’s one of the problems with monopoly: if you just keep making money whether your product is good or not, you have no incentive to make it good, especially when making it good might cost a little extra. I can’t even hope the bubble is going to burst anymore. The bubble is just what pop culture is now. It doesn’t mean there won’t be anything good again, obviously. People make good movies and shows all the time. But the vast majority of film and television is just the tired repetition of the same bland inoffensive focus-grouped shite over and over.
It’s Harley fucking Quinn all the way down.